March 8, 2009

Tor Johnson - A B-Movie Grand Edifice

Beast of Yucca FlatsTHE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)
Directed by Coleman Francis
Produced by Anthony Cardoza
Tor Johnson – Dr. Joseph Javorsky
Barbara Francis – Lois Radcliffe
Douglas Mellor – Hank Radcliffe
Bing Stafford – Jim Archer

One has only to imagine Tor Johnson, cast as a famous Russian nuclear scientist, to sense the deep, quivering potential for the unexpected that permeates this movie.

The Beast Of Yucca Flats, technically speaking, was released after the classic cycle of 1950s Radiation Cinema. It belongs more to Kennedy’s America than to Eisenhower’s, but I’m grandfathering it in on the sheer, massive credentials of Mr. Johnson, whose bullet-headed bulk defined for many a beloved strata of B-film. My friend, Nathan, has probably put it best for Tor admirers: when trying to describe my love for this film among a gaggle of friends, I explained that there really were no “special effects” in The Beast of Yucca Flats. Friend Nathan was quick to set me straight: “No, Tor Johnson is the special effects.” Bulls-eye.

Tor Johnson

Tor Johnson is a B-movie immortal, primarily because of his work with legendary director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Night of the Ghouls (1956), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) , and my personal Wood favorite; Bride of the Monster. Lord, how perpetually budget-strapped Wood must have loved this guy. With his un-natural bulk and smooth dome - and his perpetual expression of angry torment - all Wood had to do was give Johnson a sleeveless, torn shirt and a pair of white eye caps and viola! Human monster! Johnson never “acted.” He simply walked through a set, his mouth agape and his hands out, reaching for throats or any other soft spots, and his contributions to a film were substantial. I could go on, but with Johnson there is probably no need. I feel comfortable speaking for all fans of Atomic Age sci-fi on this single point – to know Tor Johnson is to love him.

The plot of The Beast of Yucca Flats is extremely simple: Famed Russian nuclear scientist, Joseph Javorsky (Johnson) is defecting to America with a briefcase full of atomic secrets. The USSR sends two of its crack KGB agents to the states, who follow him when Javorsky is escorted by Army personnel to the Yucca Flats Atomic Testing Ground. The Commie rats attempt to kill Javorsky, but only manage to chase him out into the testing ground where he is exposed to a nuclear test and becomes The Beast, burdened by blotches of makeup signifying a melted face, a raging killing machine in a torn shirt. The radiated scientist manages to kill several people before he himself is killed in the films’ finale. As I say, simple enough. But how director Coleman Francis and producer Anthony Cardoza tell the tale is anything by simple or even remotely traditional. It is the oddball choices made along the way, the bizarre narration and the moments of poverty-stricken lunacy, that make this film a thing of never-ending beauty. For example: the decision to not use sound equipment turns The Beast of Yucca Flats into a film of drama-less gestures and frozen expressions; where the mouths of the actors never move in speech. No attempt at “dubbing” is even attempted. When actors absolutely have to be given lines, their mouths are always hidden (most often the subjects are seen in long shot or shadow, sometimes cupping their hands over their mouths as if shouting) and their lines are spoken on a separate track added post-production, void of emotion or context. While this quality alone has made The Beast impossible to watch for some, impossible not to laugh at for others, I found it gave the film a gritty kabuki theater quality. The often overused word “surreal” is well placed here, and I found the film fascinating and somehow ultra modern in its minimalism (at times reminding me of a Beasty Boys music video). The movie is so staggeringly inept in every single facet of moviemaking, it eventually comes out the other side into “unique accomplishment” owing nothing to the film-makers’ talent but everything to their balls, utter lack of technical proficiency, and penury.

From the opening scene, which seems to have little point other than prurient interest, one gives up any hope for a typical or linear film. We hear the ticking of a clock and watch a very thin, very sad-eyed young woman drying herself off after a shower. She is naked, and seems even more so because of the harsh light and sparseness of the apartment. She wraps herself in a towel, and goes to her sad, sagging single bed and sits down on the edge. She seems exhausted, and a life of poverty and struggle is easily imagined. She looks up suddenly, startled (but oddly unafraid. Had director Coleman Francis the luxury of sound, I bet we would have gotten a classic 1950s girl shriek. As it is, a dour look was all that was managed). We watch her in close up as a large pair of hands reach into frame and strangle her to death. The clock stops ticking as does her heart. We learn later in the film that these are the hands of the Beast of Yucca Flats, but initially there has been absolutely nothing to give us reference. Now in utter and complete silence, the huge hands carefully, even gently, arrange the legs on the bed, and we see a huge back as the strangler moves onto the bed. Judging from the tender treatment of the extremities and the next shot, where the dead girl’s body is seen from the waist up rocking rhythmically, we know the killer is having sex with the girl’s corpse.

Holy oddball, Batman!

As if struggling for purchase, the film makers at this point roll the opening titles and a more sequential series of events begins (although it must be said the element of “time” is stretched and played with so extensively throughout the movie, the concept begins to lose meaning. Events simply tumble over one another and the viewer is often left hoping things have been presented in chronological order. It seems perhaps a deaf, timeless dream, though, dreamt in a nano-flash by a blind man simply remembering light and images).

So, let’s pick it up after Javorsky has been chased into the Yucca Flats atomic bomb testing area. What happens for the rest of the picture is this: Javorsky, freshly mutated, kills a couple, dragging the girl to his secret cave. A local discovers the body of the man, and a pair of local cops begin their search for Javorsky high into the hills where, somehow, he has managed to establish his hideout (this hideout is “1,000 feet up” which is remarkable as Tor Johnson has about all he can handle in the rocky, roasting desert terrain slogging up a gradual incline for 6 or 7 steps; but be that as it may . . ). A second vacationing couple, the Radcliffe’s, stop at a gas station and the family’s two boys wonder off into the flats and get lost. Presumably at about the same time, one of the cops, Jim Archer (Bing Stafford) takes to the skies with a hunting rifle, hanging out of the window of a small plane and taking shots at anything he sees with two legs. For reasons unknown, he has been told to “shoot first and ask questions later” and never has this old adage been followed with more vigor. Jim spots Hank Radcliffe (Douglas Mellor) searching the flats for his two lost boys, clearly dressed in casual vacation garb, and simply opens fire. Mr. Radcliffe begins to run around the flat, treeless landscape, getting shot several times before he manages to make it back to his car. He drives off without an explanation, leaving his wife to spend the remainder of the picture by the side of the road, broiling in the sun.

Officer Jim Archer (Bing Stafford)

Javorsky, meanwhile, has sort of stumbled upon the two boys, and he chases them around with a stick (I would bet dollars to doughnuts Tor Johnson needed something that would work as a cane to help him amble around, so this “weapon” was worked into the “script”). Scenes of Javorsky pursuing the two boys are particularly priceless as the tallest of the boys, perhaps feeling sorry for Mr. Johnson, nearly has to run in place so that the Beast can keep up. The other boy falls and must remain still, raised on one posted arm, looking up at the approaching Beast for a noticeable stretch before Johnson can navigate his bulk into threatening range.

Eventually Officer Jim parachutes into the flats, while his partner, Joe (Larry Aten) simply drives to the same spot where they confront the Beast, shooting him. The beast still rages, though, and the three actors make the best of a fight scene, with Johnson clearly reverting to his wrestling days (he had been, quite naturally, a professional wrestler before achieving immortality on the silver screen). After some rather uncomfortable, slow grappling, the cops manage to shoot Javorsky again, and he collapses. The two officers, for extremely unclear reasons, simply leave the dying Javorsky alone in the desert and head for home. As Javorsky lies there, presumably dying, a long-eared Jack rabbit comes near him. He pets it, sort of, in one meaty paw, and the rabbit “nuzzles” him, clearly rooting around for some food the filmmakers have stashed in Johnson's shirt. The End.

I breeze quickly through this because the actual storyline has absolutely nothing to do with what fans such as I love about this picture. One should be aware of it, but there is nothing here to appreciate or understand. The story points, such as they are, lend themselves to summary as they are simply played out without any hint of emotive quality. The performers simply move as directed without any sense of character or urgency. Are there holes in the plot? God lord, there are more holes than plot. There is only the barest skeleton of a sequence of events, and you want plot? Next you’ll be expecting “foreshadowing” and “subtext.” Wake up and smell the $34,000 dollar budget!

There are, however, three elements of this picture that make it completely unique, and, In its own way, astounding. The first of these I’ve touched on, but it begs more discussion. As I have said, the film is without a synchronized soundtrack. It would be fun to imagine that this was an artistic decision on the part of the filmmakers Francis and Cardoza, but it wasn’t, of course. They just went cheap and did their best.

This decision to go sans-sound, though, resulted in several odd, amazing moments. First, no actor can be seen speaking or shouting. Ever. Characters given dialogue are seen in long shot, in shadow, covering there mouths, or – in a technique seen in no other film in the history of cinema – the camera will consistantly pan or cut to the party not speaking, which reduces a conversation to a series of medium shots of head nods and stares in reaction to lines read off-screen in numbing, flat voices (which all sound like dull narration as there is no ambient sound to surround them, such as wind or clothes rustling). Women being strangled never scream, Innocent men being shot at from airplanes don’t holler for help; and boys running for their lives (well, skipping away for their lives, anyway) never cry or shout; all of which completely drain the film of any drama, character development, or drive. Our performers, amateur actors at best, don’t stand a chance in this soundless, soulless realm. They may as well be automatons (and in fact, after thinking about it, they are). Sound effects (well, actually any sound is an “effect” in this movie) are severely marginalized as well: Rifles are never shown actually firing, as the camera always cuts away at the critical moment of faked recoil, and the sound produced is always an odd, twangy ricochet which seems to envelope the person being shot at, most notably our poor, pathetic Mr. Radcliffe, who will spend most of his vacation getting filled with holes and dashing around the desert in circles, trying to avoid the lunatic rampage of Officer Joe. Car tires always squeal no matter how gentle the turn in the road and rocks sound like coconuts on a string bouncing down a hill. If you can get your head in the proper space, this all takes on the power of a fever dream after about a half hour.

The second aspect that helps create such a memorable movie experience is the element of time. Earlier I described how the filmmakers crush, twist, overlap, and distort time to such a point that it becomes anti-time. Brief examples will suffice to get the gist: after our two stalwart officers climb, silently, a thousand feet up a rocky cliff face and discover a girl’s dead body in the Beast’s secret cave, the next scene has a newsboy hawking a paper with the declarative headline, “Beast Kills Man and Wife.” While this is the soul of journalistic economy, this edition has been printed and has hit the streets before the cops even begin their descent down from the crime scene. Thus, time is compressed - or perhaps there as been an overlap in the fabric of time? (or perhaps, more likely, our filmmakers hoped no one would notice). Time is weirdly elongated as well. Endless shots of Lois Radcliffe (Barbara Francis), bumbling around the edges of the road near the family car, looking for any signs of her boys through her coke-bottle, cat’s eye glasses, begin to force irritating slips in time, as if perhaps no time has passed between one forlorn look and the last.

The man, the legend: Tor Johnson

And lastly comes the final element of bizarratude: the film’s narration. Director Francis Coleman took on the chore personally, and his quasi-philosophical, telegraph-style ramblings, often seeming to having little to do with this or any other film, are the only slender thread that gives the film what little forward momentum it does have. Again, examples will more than suffice to give the disjointed, flat flavor. Here is a snippet from the Radcliffe's stop at a desert gas station, littered with junk and penned animals:

“Vacation Time. People travel east, west, north or south. The Radcliffes travel east with two small boys. Adventurous Boys. Nothing bothers some people – not even flying saucers. Boys from the city. Not yet caught in the whirlwind of progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs. Coyotes. Once a menace to travelers. Missile bases run them off their hunting ground.”

Get the idea? Oh, hell yes, I know you do.

To wrap it up, get this movie. The current available edition comes from the Wade Williams Collection recently released by Image. It will cost you about $9.00 for a piece of history, or, as narration by Coleman Francis would put it:

“A sci-fi fan. Not part of the wheels of science, ever grinding. A mouse clicked. Weird things happen. Has $9.00. A question following a question. Nothing effects some viewers. Not robots. Not gorillas. A sci-fi fan. Nine bucks. B-film time capsule. Well spent.”Radiation Cinema


  1. I'm curious to see you compare this film to "The Most Dangerous Man Alive" from 1961?

  2. Darci: I don't know that film! I'll have to look into it.